Sarasota Summer Flats
“We are fishing here?” my client asked with a puzzled look on her face. It was a fairly common question on a Sarasota fishing charter.
“Yep” I replied as I quietly dropped the anchor. We were sitting in Sarasota Bay near Big Pass, surrounded by large homes and condos. What she could not see was the grass flat a cast away that dropped off sharply from three feet into eight feet of water. I instructed both clients to cast their live shrimp out towards the edge and allow the shrimp to drift naturally with the current. Within seconds both rods were bent double and any doubt was erased as a pair of fat spotted sea trout came to the boat.
We departed CB’s saltwater Oufitters on Siesta Key that morning and headed north through the “No Wake Zone” towards Sarasota Bay. Along the way we passed a lot of oyster bars and mangrove shorelines that looked very “fishy”. And while those spots can hold fish, only a small percentage will. Bottom line; for action and variety the deep grass flats are the most productive spots to fish. Sarasota Bay from Siesta Drive north to Long Bar has large expanses of grass flats in four to eight feet of water that hold fish year-round. Spanish mackerel, spotted sea trout, silver trout, pompano, bluefish, black sea bass, mangrove snapper, sharks, jack crevelle, gag grouper, flounder, and ladyfish are commonly caught species.
There are several approaches that can be successfully employed on the deep flats on a Sarasota fishing charter. The first choice to make is whether to anchor or drift the flats. Large expanses are most efficiently fished by drifting while smaller patches or edges are best fished from an anchored boat. Working the edge of a shallow flat that drops off sharply into deeper water is a deadly technique that is particularly effective on low tides. The fish will tend to stage on the edge as there isn’t enough water up on top of the flat. While artificial lures can be used this is a situation that is best suited for live bait. A live shrimp or small baitfish free-lined over the edge is simple and very effective.
Drifting the flat while casting lures is an extremely popular and effective technique. One benefit of using artificial lures is that anglers can cover a lot of water fairly quickly. This is important on the larger expanses of grass; the sooner the fish are located, the better! The primary lure used on the Gulf Coast of Florida is the lead head jig and grub combo. This versatile and inexpensive bait will catch anything that swims and has resulted in many a tasty fish dinner. Jigs come in a variety of sizes and colors but ¼ ounce heads in white or red are all that is required. Plastic bodies also come in a myriad of shapes and colors but again it does not need to be complicated. A selection of gold, pearl, olive, rootbeer, and charteuse bodies in both the shad tail and flat grub tail will cover most situations. Scented soft plastics such as Gulp! Shrimp can make the difference if the bite is slow.
Hard plugs also catch a lot of fish on Sarasota fishing charters. The venerable suspending MirrOlure baits have been a staple in tackle boxes for decades. They slowly sink and when twitched suspend motionless in the water. Speckled trout in particular find them irresistible. Shallow diving plugs such as the Rapala X-Rap also work well when retrieved erratically. They are a great choice when surface activity is present and are also effective when trolled.
Live bait can certainly be used while drifting as well. In fact, it is a fair bet that more speckled trout have been put on ice using a live shrimp under a popping cork than any other method. This is simply a #1/0 live bait hook with a “popping cork” placed on the line three feet or so above the hook. A live shrimp is hooked under the horn and the rig is cast out in front of the boat as it drifts along. The cork has a concave face that “pops” when twitched sharply. This simulates the sound of feeding fish and will attract trout and other species to the shrimp which is dangling there helplessly. There are also several manufacturers of noisy floats such as the Cajun Thunder float. These are very noisy and can be cast a long way. The cork is tied on to the running line and then a leader connects the cork to the hook. Popping corks work great in water depths of six feet or less. A live shrimp can even be replaced with a light jig or artificial shrimp. Live baits can also be drifted out behind the boat. This works well in deeper water and under breezy conditions.
Live baitfish are another terrific producer on the flats. Pinfish and grunts can be purchased at local bait shops or caught out on the flats and are best fished under a float to keep them from getting in the grass. “Whitebait” is a local term used to describe the schools of small silver bait fish that cover the flats in the warmer months. Scaled sardines (also known as pilchards) and threadfins (greenies) are the two most prolific species. Pilchards are the preferred bait as they are much hardier than the threadies, but both are equally effective. Baitfish are sighted on the grass or chummed into range and then cast netted and quickly put into a large, well aerated baitwell. Jack mackerel or canned cat food mixed with bread is a popular chum as well as bulk tropical fish food.
In the summertime these baitfish are thick on the shallow grass near the passes. Loading up the live well with bait practically guarantees success. Once the bait is acquired, anchor up-current of a flat and toss out a handful of bait. Repeat this every few minutes and if the fish are there they will show up in short order. Once the action heats up, slow down the chum flow; use just enough to keep them excited. I average one hundred fish mornings all summer long using this method.
Tackle and rigging is pretty basic when using either live or artificial bait. A 6 ½’ or 7’ spinning rod with 10 lb monofilament or 20 lb braided line is perfect. Several feet of the running line is doubled using a Spider Hitch or Bimini Twist. A 24” piece of fluorocarbon leader is attached to the double line using a double Uni-knot. A hook or lure completes the rig. This set up makes changing lures or hooks and adding or removing corks fast and easy. Once the leader gets down to 12” or so, replace it. Leader strength is determined by water clarity and also by species targeted. Thirty pound is a good all-round leader but lighter line may be required in very clear water or heavier leader used when toothy fish such as Spanish mackerel and bluefish are around.
As with all fishing techniques there are subtle nuances which will increase success. Here are some tips that will help your trips be more successful:
1) Choose a flat that has the wind and current moving in the same direction. Boat positioning and bait presentation will be better. This holds true both when drifting and anchoring.
2) When drifting, keep an anchor with 20’ of line tied off. Once fish are located, quietly slide the anchor in and work that area thoroughly. When the action slows, pull the anchor and continue the drift.
3) Try and set up a drift that covers different depths on the flat. Drifting from eight feet of water into four feet of water is better than drifting at one depth.
4) Keep the noise down. Have the landing net out and keep the bait well lid open. Slamming hatches will shut down the fish!
There is a misconception that fishing is tough in the heat of summer. Nothing could be further from the truth! Fishing is fantastic, but the window is small, from dawn until eleven o’clock or so. One approach that works in the summer is to combine both artificial lure and live bait fishing in a morning charter. I get my clients out on the water at first light, taking advantage of the early morning bite. There is no need to waste that prime time catching bait and making a bunch of noise first thing will put the fish off their feed. Casting jigs and plugs will attract actively feeding fish. Once the bite slows, I net up some bait and chum them into a frenzy. This “best of both worlds” approach has served me well and makes good use of the limited fishing time.
Want action? Want variety? Want dinner? Then take a Sarasota fishing charter!
March Madness is a term most recognized throughout the country as the exciting men’s college basketball tournament. But it has a different meaning for businesses along the west coast of Florida and fishing guides who offer a Sarasota fishing charter are no exception. Sarasota fills to overflowing with visitors from the northern states who come down on their children’s breaks from school. Most enjoy the incredible beaches that we offer but many also choose to fish while they are here. A lot of charters involve anglers with limited experience including kids. Fishing with youngsters is a lot of fun but does require a change in thinking and tactics.
Family fishing is all about one thing; bent rods. Action and variety take precedence over trophy fish or glamour species such as redfish and snook on this type of Sarasota fishing charter. Nothing beats drifting the passes and nearby deep grass flats of Sarasota Bay when it comes to producing action. Spanish mackerel, speckled trout, silver trout, pompano, bluefish, ladyfish, jacks, sea bass, and flounder are all daily catches in March. The two primary techniques are working a lead head jig with a soft plastic tail and using live shrimp. Both methods work well in the passes and on the flats.
Both Big Pass and New Pass can be very productive in March. The only time fishing is slow is after a cold front passes through and the water becomes dirty. Otherwise, Spanish mackerel, bluefish, pompano, and ladyfish can be counted on for action and a meal or two. Anglers drift with the wind and tide and cast jigs out in front of the boat. The lure is cast out, allowed to sink, and retrieved back in using sharp twitches. In clear water gold is a great color to use. In deeper water the jig can be dropped straight down and jigged vertically as the boat drifts along.
Anglers who choose to use live shrimp will do well “free-lining” their bait. This means simply using a hook and letting the shrimp swim naturally in the current. If the tide is strong a small split shot may be required to get the bait down a bit. A long shank 1/0 hook will help prevent cutoffs from toothy blues and Spanish mackerel. A live shrimp can also be added to a plain jig head and bounced along the bottom. Shore anglers can access Big Pass from Shell Rd on Siesta Key and South Lido Park on Lido Key. New Pass is even more accessible with parks on both sides on the pass.
The deep grass flats in Sarasota Bay surrounding the passes offer outstanding fishing . Patches of grass in four to eight feet of water will be the most productive. In the clear water the darker grassy areas are easily spotted. The jig and grub combo is a very effective lure. A red or white ¼ ounce jig head is a great all-round choice. Tails come in a myriad of colors and styles but they all catch fish. Gold, chartreuse, rootbeer, olive, pearl, and glow are the most popular colors. Scented baits such as Gulp! Shrimp cost a bit more but can make the difference if the bite is slow. Just as in pass fishing, the jig is cast out and retrieved back in. It is important to get the jig down near the top of the grass.
Live shrimp are deadly when fished over the deep flats and will catch just about every fish that swims. In deeper water the shrimp can be free lined but the most popular method is to use a “popping cork”. This simple but deadly rig consists of a 1/0 live bait hook three feet under the cork. The rig is cast out, allowed to settle, and the rod tip jerked sharply causing the cork to “pop”. This imitates feeding fish and attracts game fish to the cork where they then see the helpless shrimp dangling there. More speckled trout have fallen victim to this technique along the Gulf Coats that all other methods combined.
Another productive technique on a Sarasota fishing charter is working docks, bridges, and other structure in the same areas. Sheepshead are thick under docks and around bridge pilings in March. Flounder, black drum, redfish, grouper, and snapper are often caught, too. The rocks at the northern tip of Siesta Key are a great spot as are all the docks and bridges in both passes. This is basic bottom fishing. The rig consists on a stout #1 or #1/0 hook, a 2 foot piece of thirty pound leader and enough weight to hold the bottom. In shallow water or slack current a split shot will be plenty. In deeper water or in heavy current a small egg sinker threaded on the line will be required.
A live shrimp is hooked through the horn and cast out towards the structure. Once the bait settles the slack is reeled up taut and the wait begins. Sheepshead can be a bit tricky to hook; it can be a very subtle bite. The trick is to let the fish peck at it until it picks it up and moves off. Then just reel quickly while raising the rod tip high.